Workplace wellness programmes may be a waste of time and money, study concludes

workplace wellnessThe $8 billion dollar wellness industry in the US may not be achieving very much, according to a new analysis from academics at Chicago University and the University of Illinois published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. While the researchers concede that the difficulties of measuring the impact of such programmes depends very much on the characteristics of the people who enter them voluntarily, their study of 5,000 people found that the effects of a wellness programme were non-existent to negligible across a range of metrics.

The researchers set up a staff wellness programme at the University of Illinois and invited 12,000 employees to enter into it. Of those, 5,000 took up the offer and were questioned about and screened for their health status, lifestyle, use of healthcare, job satisfaction and productivity levels. The researchers note that the remaining 7,000 employees tending to be older and in poorer health or – conversely – younger, active and had no net spend on healthcare.

The programme the 5,000 staff entered offered a range of benefits including guidance on health, productivity and lifestyle as well as programmes of weight management, cutting down or quitting alcohol and smoking, developing healthy workplace habits and daily exercise programmes.

A third of participants were assigned to a control group and offered no further support after the first screening. The remainders engaged in the wellness programme for two semesters. At the end of the academic year, the active participants and those in the control group completed a follow up questionnaire and were assessed for their health and wellbeing.

The researchers found that, compared to the control group, active participants in the programme did not take significantly fewer sick days. Nor were they more likely to stay in their job, get a promotion or get a pay hike. They didn’t spend any less on medication or hospital visits, undermining the financial rationale in reducing medical insurance claims. And those in the programme showed no improvement in health behaviours such as using the gym running.

Although there were no significant improvements across 37 metrics, there were some statistically significant improvements in levels of happiness at work and job satisfaction.

The authors conclude that overall there was no return on investment case for the wellness programme. They do suggest however, that the existence of the programme might attract more healthy workers to an organisation in the first place.